When I first discovered that there was such a thing as a writer’s colony – where one could scribble away for weeks in a secluded cottage, but in the vicinity of other writers and have picnic-basket lunches delivered via invisible elves – I couldn’t imagine anything more heavenly. But being awarded such a spot is like winning a literary lottery, and often time or travel constraints put them even further out of reach.
Colonies and residencies for writers are dreamy, but many of them are stiffly competitive. Furthermore, their time constraints might not work with the demands of one’s family or job. This doesn’t mean that you have to give up the dream. Sometimes I just can’t take time away for the month or two that an established colony offers. I’ve been planning and going on DIY writing retreats for periods ranging from one to 20 days, on my own and with writer friends, for more than 25 years now.
I began longing to get away to write when I was a brand-new mother and fledgling writer. I desperately craved a pocket of time where I could just think, sleep, write, and read uninterrupted for longer than a minute at a time. When my daughter turned 1 year old, I packed up my computer, my journal, a few books, and my favorite pillow, and headed to Santa Sabina, a retreat center that had once been a convent for novitiate nuns. For a nominal fee, I tucked into my little room, with its simple narrow bed, sturdy desk, and a magical wooden wardrobe that promised entry to Narnia, or at least to the imaginary world of my own short stories. The window, framed by wispy white curtains, overlooked a charming courtyard garden. I fell onto the bed and slept hard for the first time in months. When I awoke, I was supercharged with energy and ideas, and ready to draft notes toward a new short story. I ate a simple, silent meal with other retreatants in a high-ceilinged dining room with leaded glass windows. For a few blissful hours, I read my books in the quiet window-seat of the hermitage, a straw bale meditation hut built on a grassy hillside above the center. The 24 hours were deep and nourishing, and the concentrated solitude felt as productive as a full week. I headed home, grateful for the pocket of creative time and glad to return to my family.
Since those early days, I’ve returned to Santa Sabina dozens of times – sometimes alone but more often with friends, and for longer periods as my children grew older. In past years, I’ve introduced over 100 writers to the bliss of the contemplative retreat, a place to think and create in peace. It’s been a joy for me to share the gift of silence and solitude in that place.
The DIY retreat
But going to Santa Sabina was just the beginning, and just one way of getting away. Do-it-ourselves retreats have given me and my writer buddies the opportunity to customize the experience to exactly what we need and want. Three of us created a spontaneous, low-budget retreat by offering to house-sit for local friends who were traveling. Just being away from our own familiar homes – with their never-ending calls of laundry, house tasks, and errands – created the perfect writer staycation. We each came with a bagful of groceries and a favorite dinner recipe. We awoke on our own schedules, and if we passed each other in the hallways, we just acknowledged each other with a nod. We wrote all day, walked the neighborhood in the late afternoon, and came together at dinnertime to prepare a meal together over a glass of wine. We shared recipes for a delicious mushroom risotto and a grandmother’s roast chicken. Later in the evening, we read pages to each other by the fire. On our final night, we treated ourselves to dinner at a nearby restaurant and toasted each others’ newly minted works. An ordinary home in a nondescript neighborhood had proven to be the perfect place to get away.
Other writers have used borrowed homes for getaways as well. Leticia Del Toro says, “My friends know I have two young children, so when they leave town they offer me their keys to stay and write. My friends have been so generous, it’s allowed me to detach and yet write in a comfortable, cozy environment. My family can reach me if I they need to, and I’m not guilted by my own piles of laundry or dishes as I would be if I were at home. Let it be known to your circle of friends that you need time and space.”
Jennifer Baker reached out to friends and landed some no-cost retreat spaces – one housesit in San Jose and another guest room in Portland. “It was perfect!” she says. “In one case, I had the whole place to myself, a stocked house, and a map of my surroundings. I wrote during the week and saw nearby friends on weekends. In Portland, my friend showed me around, and we still made weekdays our respective work days (she’s a visual artist).” She recommends this approach of reaching out to friends.
The advent of home-rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO has opened up infinite possibilities for lodging, ranging from the very affordable to luxurious, often in close driving distance. Soniah Kamal discovered that she didn’t even have to go away, but sent her family away instead. She sent her husband and three kids to the beach for 10 days and turned her own home into a retreat. “I wrote an 80,000-word novel draft in those 10 days,” she says.
True writing getaways
It can be a real treat to combine a writing retreat with a longed-for distant destination. As much as I’ve enjoyed traveling with non-writing friends and relatives, after a few days I often get itchy to return to the page, restless to write. Going on vacation with writer friends – what could be better?
Last summer, I had the opportunity to combine a writing retreat with an irresistible setting. San Miguel de Allende, in the central mountains of Mexico, is an enchanting haven of art, culture, and food that attracts writers and artists from all over the world. A friend rented a beautiful, centrally located casita with walls in vibrant colors and a rooftop patio (perfect for writing-with-a-view) for a month. She invited others to join her for a week or two at a time, and I was lucky enough to be one of the rotating number of writers for 10 days. It was an amazing place to write, but I discovered that it was maybe just a little too amazing. It was a challenge to be surrounded by so many irresistible attractions – the constant tug and pull of artisans’ markets, swimming grottos, and mouthwatering food stands and restaurants made it hard to concentrate. We had to make an ironclad writing schedule and stick to it – a certain number of hours or pages had to be completed before going out to explore or tasting margaritas.
In fact, writer Alice Anderson eschews locations that are too interesting or beautiful. “I do solo writing ‘retreats’ when I need to get serious writing done. I do not go somewhere beautiful, or by a lake, or luxurious, or with natural views,” she says. Instead, she checks into a good hotel. She buys brand-new pajamas and snacks. She asks for the highest, most quiet room they have, with a writing desk and a good chair. She brings a portable printer and new ream of paper. “I let them know I am a writer and I am checking in for the sole purpose of writing. Once I check in, it is full immersion. I put on those pajamas and write. I often bring documents or visuals and tape them to a wall. I write for 12 to 14 hours a day. I read passages aloud, rewrite, sleep when needed, get up, and write when inspired. For me, a ‘retreat’ is about one thing and one thing only – writing.”
Sabra Wineteer has found affordable solitude in rustic cabins in Pennsylvania state parks. “They are cheap – less than $50 a night. They are convenient; less than an hour away. They are isolated; no internet, no phone reception. And they are reviving; I often go on hiking or ‘forest bathing’ breaks twice a day.”
Poet Lee Herrick travels alone to San Francisco every few months. He says that he loves the cultural synergy there, the literary history, and being close to City Lights bookstore. He has favorite hotels where he can burrow in and write for short bursts, with “literary and cultural ghosts for inspiration.”
Writing retreats with others
Some people prefer to do their retreats solo, but others enjoy the camaraderie and community of writing with friends. Communication when retreating-with-friends is a crucial element. It’s important to be specific and clear about expectations: How long will the retreat be? What is the agreed-upon budget? Will everyone be in charge of preparing their own meals, or will they be shared? Is this a retreat primarily for generating work, or will there be time for sharing and critiquing? What are everyone’s goals in terms of solitude versus companionship? Will the schedule focus primarily on writing, or will there be time built in for exploring, local sightseeing, or exercise? In a shared house, how will bedrooms be chosen? Who will stake out which writing spot? Remember, not all rental or borrowed homes are created equal.
I’ve learned the hard way that not all getaways, even amongst friends, are paradise. I recently rented a VRBO home for four as a reunion trip for grad-school friends and classmates. At the last minute, the owners notified us that there had to be emergency repairs, and they offered a neighbor’s house in its place. This was not the house we’d planned or hoped for – it wasn’t nearly as charming, it had a mold problem, and the writing spaces were less than ideal. Settling in to work on our projects became a challenge. Midweek, one of our group members had a family emergency, the retreat came apart at the seams, and the crisis led to bruised feelings and disappointments. Over time, the friendships were repaired, but that trip won’t stand in memory as the most idyllic retreat. Things happen, just as they do in “real” life, and the unstructured nature of a DIY retreat can sometimes leave people floundering.
Planning the best DIY retreat possible
I’ve found that the very best independent retreats have mirrored the structure of writing retreats in some important ways – they’re a mixture of solitude, sharing time, independence, and community. They include writing furniture – substantial desks or tables, bookshelves for inspiration, simple but ample food. I’ve enjoyed my own writerly getaways at my relatives’ backyard cottage near Asheville, North Carolina; in a snow-covered cabin by Lake Tahoe; and in a variety of rental houses from the beach to city apartments.
But it’s no accident that many writers’ colonies are located on rural sites, far from the distractions of city life or tourist attractions. Many residencies insist that visiting writers eschew all distractions of life and give up their cell phones or constant Wi-Fi connections. They remind you that you’re there to unplug and focus on your work. So it’s up to each mini-retreat for members to decide what restrictions to place on themselves and each other. Writers under a strict deadline may choose to do nothing more than eat, sleep, and write from dawn until midnight – I’ve known some who have banged out an entire book in two weeks’ time. It’s important to establish your own definition of “productive.” For many, three solid hours of focus or a few well-crafted pages is a victory.
One day, you may land a coveted spot at some idyllic residency. But you don’t have to wait until then to have your “room of one’s own.” You can create your own writing time away from it all, in a cabin, convent, or house across town, with or without some writerly pals.
Susan Ito lives in Oakland, CA and writes and teaches at the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto, Bay Path University, and Mills College.
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